Beki Grinter

Academic Management: The Philosophy of Tools

In academia, academic management on June 10, 2009 at 11:52 am

OK, to be quite honest, this is probably going to sound like a statement of the bleeding obvious (which is a phrase that I feel is under said, but over done)

But, the way I see my blog is that it’s an opportunity for me to think through ideas that are at one level obvious, but at another, because I am somehow involved and somehow experiencing it, or finally saw it, is something I want to capture.

Perhaps I should step back and offer the following about myself. I do empirical research. I do experience, understanding experience. So, perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that that’s the way I interpret the world more generally. Now at this point I could say some things about symbolic interactionism, or living an interpretivist lifestyle, although I might also have to confess to believing somewhat in mixed-methods approaches, in that way Bourdieu and Giddens appeal… structures…  But, when I see things, or when I am required to deal with them, I begin to see things in quite a different way, and that’s happening again with respect to thinking about external and internal management.

Until I came to Georgia Tech I had always been a leaf node. I was at the bottom of every organization I worked for or studied within. As a Ph.D. student I did not build an empire of other graduate students, quite oddly I worked entirely on my own. So, I can’t think of a time I was anything but at the bottom of the ladder, the leaf at the farthest edges of the corporation. So, the forms of management I dealt with were internal (in my own organization) managing up, making sure that my boss had a good impression of me, understood what I was doing and its worth to the corporation.  There was also some external management, to people outside of my immediate hierarchy, but to whom I owed service and who I needed to say to my management that I had been helpful (hopefully).

At Georgia Tech there’s far more going on. I am no longer the leaf. I have students, I have students who work with many other students. I teach.  These are forms of managing down. I am responsible for their success and welfare, it is through meeting with me (in the classroom, in weekly one on ones).  It’s also internal, because its facing the organization that I am in.

There’s also internal, managing up, although this is far more complicated. Tenure makes it so. Clearly, I need to manage up to people like my School Chair, the man does my annual performance review, but it’s in a context where I am guaranteed a type of intellectual freedom that comes with tenure. I became an Associate Dean, and now I have a lot more people I could theoretically report too, or whom could report to me. People like the Dean, with whom I also have a performance review, and people in the Provost’s office who work on Institute level priorities that the College should work into. What’s odd is that rather than having a promotion shorten a management chain (move from reporting to the School Chair to the Dean, as it would in a corporation, it’s actually additive, I have now two chains of management).

So internal, it’s like the matrix structure with it’s own academic twist. Lets call it the academic matrix.  Or perhaps the academic maze. Frankly I’m still not sure I understand it or how it works. But it is something really different.  And if I haven’t said it before I do wonder whether managing it with the same tools that we use to manage commercial organizations is wise. Specifically, are we borrowing tools that have a fundamentally different philosophical premise behind them—ones that turn on a belief in the capitalist system or, as Adam Smith thought the invisible hand of market mechanisms (although I am more inclined to Chandler, that the invisible has been replaced with the visible hand as administrative structures have replaced market mechanisms for managing commercial enterprises).

My question: does academic management need its own specially developed tools for this unique environment? And, if the answer is yes, what are they?

One I think is charisma, I wonder whether academic management has more in common with being a preacher or a minister… which wouldn’t be completely surprising since the academy has its origins in religious organizations. Do academic organizations have more in common with volunteer organizations than employed organizations? We pay graduate students of course, but it’s hardly “real”, we don’t pay undergraduates, they pay us (along with the State, thank you Georgia). I think these are legitimate questions (well I would wouldn’t I, it’s my blog).

And then there’s external management. That’s something altogether else. And classically not quite as simple as it might sound. So, there are projects that I have individually, and it is my job to do external management around them. But there are also, and perhaps this is peculiar to my institution, projects that I am involved with through research centers. And thankfully, and I must thank the two center heads I work with most closely for the tireless and fearless sponsor management. I am indebted to their external facing natures and commitment to managing what can be at times surprisingly intense relationships (and I don’t deal terribly well with surprisingly intense things).

(I’m still on the fence with respect to anonymity in my blog as you can tell). I tend to refer to roles rather than people. And you know that’s another thing I notice in my limited experience with academic management. I email people rather than roles. I am emailed as myself rather than through my responsibility. And so you can easily see how institutional knowledge is spread. You get on these lists, you never get off, even if your responsibilities change. Fascinating. If information is power, then email lists are the most interesting of mechanisms for determining who should get that knowledge.

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